In the Mail: Non-Fiction Edition

–> Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman

Publishers Weekly

Historian Freeman (The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts) paints a flattering portrait of Caesar in this admirable biography, exalting his cunning, military skill, political insights and allegiance to the plebeian class. In fast-paced prose and detailed historical sketches, Freeman traces Caesar’s life from early youth onward, covering his marriage and service as a priest (or pontifex); his election to pontifex maximusin 63 B.C.; his command of Roman forces in the Gallic Wars; his ascension to leader of the republic; and his famous assassination. Drawing on Caesar’s own writings, Freeman portrays him as a brilliant military strategist whose defense of Roman land in the Gallic Wars extended the rule of Rome from Italy to the Atlantic. Caesar returned to Italy in 49 B.C. and became dictator three years later, seeking to improve the republic through civic reforms, including the taking of a proper census, the building of a library, the codification of Roman law and the conversion of Rome to a solar calendar. Although Freeman’s biography reveals little new information about Caesar, his cultural and historical knowledge bring the emperor to life and humanize him in a way no writer before him has succeeded in doing.

–> Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations by J. Edward Chamberlin

The Washington Post – Jane Smiley

While Horse is not as detailed and informative as I might wish for, it is well worth reading for the way Chamberlin builds his argument and his energy, and for the way that, yes, even rational humans who might never buy a horse or watch a horse race might be brought to appreciate what horses have done for us and meant to us for thousands of years.

–> Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Miles J. Unger

Publishers Weekly

Although a well-mined biography topic, the Medici dynasty continues to fascinate, and critic Unger (The Watercolors of Winslow Homer) offers a smart, highly readable and abundantly researched book, making particularly good use of Medici family letters and earlier biographical sources such as Machiavelli’s writings. Heir to a vast international banking empire and trading cartel with branches in Venice, London and Geneva, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) was born to rule. Naturally sociable and charismatic with a common touch, famous temper and cynical world view, the teenaged Lorenzo excelled in classics, riding, arms, archery and music. He pursued liaisons with both women and men, represented his sickly father, Piero, on an important diplomatic mission and thwarted his father’s enemies during a legendary ambush. His accomplishments do not stop there: as Florence’s de facto ruler, Lorenzo actively collaborated with the artist Botticelli, was a master tactician and diplomat, and survived a papal-sanctioned assassination attempt that claimed the life of his beloved brother. Renaissance Florence-where wealthy aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the poor on narrow city streets and whose art and intellectual life dazzled Europe-is itself an intriguing character, proving Unger’s mastery over his facts.

–> Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power by John Harwood and Gerald Seib

Kirkus Reviews

There are plenty of centrists in America, but to judge by Wall Street Journal stalwarts Harwood and Seib, there are very few in Washington. These profiles of 16 of the capital city’s fixers, fundraisers, spin doctors and assorted movers and shakers reveal that they agree on little except that they disagree. Americans have always known political divisions, the authors aver, but “today the divisions have taken on a new character. Power is so divided between the two parties that, in a very real sense, nobody has enough control either to paper over differences or to roll past them. Nobody is in charge.” Moreover, Republicans and Democrats no longer hang out in the same bars and restaurants, as they once did. Indeed, many, such as Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, no longer hang out in Washington, preferring, in essence, to commute from their districts rather than become dreaded inside-the-Beltway insiders.

The furor over the Dubai Ports World affair, whereby a foreign-owned (and Arabic-speaking) company would be in charge of several American seaports, is just one of the partisan cases in point. There was so much shouting involved that few sat down to discuss if there was any merit to awarding the contract to a company that, after all, managed ports all over the world. Some lament the death of collegiality; some true believers applaud it. But the real movers and shakers, this book makes plain without quite saying so, are a tribe unto themselves. Ken Mehlman, one-time Republican Party chairman, is the law partner of one-time Democratic Party chairman Robert Strauss, and he is given to wondering why the two contingents have yet to really make common cause against the “Islamic fascists . . . themost anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, religiously intolerant force in the world.”The culture may change soon. It may not. Policy wonks will enjoy this solid, well-reported portrait of life in the District, while insiders will look for their names in the index.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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